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“Why Poetry?”: It’s Simple!

Joe O’Connor had a book launch for his poetry chapbook, Why Poetry? and it was different than any other reading I had seen in a very profound way.

As an undergraduate student and biochemistry major, presentations I have viewed are almost always rigid in structure and stale in content.  Presenters want to get a lot of information across in a short amount of time and as a result they generally speed through presentations as quickly as they can.  Being speedy is not particularly bad if the content is dynamic and still comprehensible for the listener, but students often rush in order to meet all criteria pertaining to a syllabus, leaving the audience clueless and bored.

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Joe O’Connor, author of Why Poetry?   © Eulalia Books

O’Connor managed to give a very down-to-earth presentation that was compelling to audience members.  Whether the audience had read his works or not – it didn’t matter.  O’Connor spoke the simple truth and that was it.  Opinions on his background, how he defined poetry, and the types of people he met in his life, are just a few of the topics that he covered and these topics gave his formal presentation the illusion of casual conversation.

As a audience member of several literature readings, most presentations have been exactly the same – first there is a discussion, next is a reading, and finally there is a question and answer section.  Often times the reading section feels long and boring because the author fumbles trying to decide good places to read from or just picks spots that are seemingly random to the audience.

O’Connor started with an introduction but then intertwined his personal notes and stories with the poetry that he read.  In between each poem, he included shared another segment of his life or just gave an opinion on something pertinent to his poetry.  The back-and-forth structure kept the readings fresh and set the stage for individual poems so that they could be well-digested by the audience.

My reading from the event was O’Connor’s “Double Negative,” where O’Connor explains how war and times of struggle can make aspects of life that should be beautiful and meaningful seem as if they “Don’t mean nothing.”  He read the text with such great pacing and power that is needed when reading a text with repetition; I don’t think the text has nearly the same effect when not read aloud.

My favorite side-blurb that O’Connor gave was his discussion about simplistic poetry and why its existence is important for the sake of what poetry is.  He shared that he used to not fully appreciate simplistic poetry, but then how he grew to appreciate it because simple poetry allows the reader to form a lot of imagery, ideas, and so forth, from simple ideas.  I felt like the O’Connor’s blurb complemented “Double Negative,” because to look between the lines and draw out the good in times of stress or war is what exactly what humans need.

Overall, the book launch was a neat experience and a chance to appreciate the simpler things in life.  I was glad to have been a part of the project and I hope to one day have the chance to speak at my own reading with a creative angle to match.

Sewing and Growing: What it Means to Start Small

In collaboration with Eulalia Books and as part of a Small Press Publishing course, I was able to help in the production of Joe O’Connor’s poetry chapbook, “Why Poetry?”

While I am fairly skilled in using technology and designing, I was late to joining a team in the project and I only contributed minimally to creating announcement flyers for the project, as a result.

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Covers of unbound “Why Poetry?” books. ©Eulalia Books

My biggest contribution, unexpectedly, was the manual threading of the spine of the book.  As someone who has terrible large motor skills and struggled during middle school sewing class, the idea of putting together several books that people would purchase was daunting to say the least.

Despite my concerns, I sporadically said “yes” and found myself sewing several books for the project.   Julia Snyder, threading expert, showed me how to sew the book and got me rolling in less than five minutes.  While I made a few mistakes and shed some blood along the way, thus creating an exclusive “Blood Edition” of the chapbook, I found the experience to be soothing and I felt proud of the multiple books I tied together.

I took pride in not only what I produced, but in participating in something I was unfamiliar with, which is a complete turnover from how I reacted to new situations in my childhood.  In recent years I have acquired an ambivalent skill set because of my willingness to be flexible, my sporadic tendency to say “sure” when I am asked to help out, and my desire to gain new experiences.  The reason I note this change is because I think the power of the small press and the power of entrepreneurship is underappreciated.

For people working within a smaller community or independently with limited resources available, a wide array of skills is needed to succeed.  Being an expert in just one skill is not always enough and I am proud to have been part of a group that acknowledges the need to try new things and share skills with others.  I wish that larger presses and other occupations encouraged diversification over specification, because I strongly believe that people grow as appreciative and understanding beings from trying new things.

"Why Poetry?" Because It's Necessary.

Author Joe O’Connor at Eulalia Books launch of his work, “Why Poetry?” © Mandy Sirofchuck

Bittersweet but successful, our Small Press Publishing Class met for the last time on Wednesday, Dec. 4, for the culmination of all our learning and effort: the book launch for author Joe O’Connor’s first published work. Each member had worked diligently on their assigned portion of the event, and the effort was evident! 

Joe O’Connor’s vibrant personality and humility delighted me. He read each poem with sincerity and genuine enthusiasm. Rather than plow through his entire work, he paused thoughtfully between several poems and gave us snippets of experience—little windows into his world—to consider and take to heart. Many were life-lessons that he learned during his time at Saint Vincent, and one of them I will never forget. O’Connor recalled the college President’s speech at his freshman banquet, where he instructed the students to look to their right and to their left, proceeding to tell them that those were the people who would teach them ninety percent of everything they’d learn at college. How true that is! His minute details, painting mental images of his life, drew me into the wisdom of his down-to-earth poetry and helped me to relate to him.

He also touched on artists, being one himself, in ways which piqued my interest. Jim Kozak, cover design artist for Why Poetry, roomed with him at Saint Vincent. Both aspiring artists encouraged each other. Encouragement, O’Connor declared emphatically, is the most important thing one can give an artist. Encouragement carried him through agonizing years of mere publishing dreams to the reality of a printed work in his hands, a work to be distributed and enjoyed by people he may never meet, as is the nature of selling books. He thanked his wife, Ms. Gil-Montero, Kozak, and our entire class for roles in encouraging him to carry on with his life-long dream.

I always find it fascinating to learn what roots such a passion for the arts in each individual. O’Connor shared that he first learned to write poetry in detention. Forced to memorize passages of books if he wanted to leave early from his punishment, he found himself face-to-face with words, grappling them and their irascible nature to slip out of mind just when needed. Memorizing the passages made him organize words and view them in a new manner, a manner which led to writing his own. 

O’Connor’s speech and reading of his work satisfactorily answer the question, “Why Poetry?” The answer, in essence, is because it’s necessary. No matter the job—as Joe O’Connor himself worked in economics—every person needs a little color, a little touch of art in their life, a little way to express their deepest thoughts and dreams on paper, and sometimes, a little way to share them with the world.

This class has been a pleasure! I wish best of luck to everyone as we embark on the next leg of the journey: taking what we’ve learned and applying it to our own careers and daily life. A special “thank-you” to our fabulous professor, Ms. Gil-Montero, the wonderful Haylee Ebersole for hosting our group for workshops, and author Joe O’Connor, for inspiring each of us along the way.

Piecing Everything Together

If you were told to make a book, what would you imagine? Most people would probably think of the interior, all the words marching from page to page in tidy little rows. Typing. Editing. Printing. But what about the book as an object, not merely as content to be written and edited and formatted? What about the cover and spine? “We should keep in mind that no text exists outside of the physical support that offers it for reading,” say Guglielmo Cavallo and Roger Chartier in A History of Reading in the West (quoted in The Book, by Amaranth Borsuk).

On Wednesday, November 20, up the creaking staircases and winding hallways to Placid 424, the ever elusive English classroom, our Small Press Publishing class and several student volunteers from around campus united to bind together three-hundred copies of Why Poetry, by Joe O’Connor. We set up stations: one group worked on creasing the printed interior; the next ensured all pages were in their proper order and secured them with binder clips, then sent them to be hole-punched for those of us saddle-stitching them together. Although it was efficient, every endeavor has its trials, and our main opponent came in the form of binder clips…they left permanent marks on the fresh white pages! The day was saved by a clever use of post-it notes under each clip to protect the paper, but it cost our group over ten copies of our precious chapbook. 

That wasn’t all that went amiss: we soon discovered that some of the holes had not been punched directly in the spine, but to the side of it, making the spine crooked, or the binding uneven. This threw off the stitching, which also proved a problem: the single-strand cord constantly snapped when we tried to close the covers! We resolved the issue by doubling it. 

The experience of working together on such a tedious and impossible-sounding project, with a fast deadline, provided a somewhat tense, but also exciting atmosphere as we rose from each trial and tried again. I enjoyed great conversations with my peers and believe I got to know several of my classmates better for this time together, which lent itself (surprisingly) more to conversation than some of our other excursions. Perhaps more importantly, it emphasized a point that I believe I have made in nearly ever blog post this semester: the importance of the tangible. A book, as Borsuk would agree, is as much an object as the content itself, an object that we pick up, sniff, carry with us, and sometimes even destroy. Putting one together through the full process of designing the interior, screen-printing the covers, and sewing both to create a unified whole taught me just how much I don’t know about the effort involved in bringing a work of fiction from one’s imagination to the bookstore shelf. 

Works Cited:

Amaranth Borsuk. The Book. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT Press, 2018. Page 29.

Why Small Press Publishing?

Poet Joe O’Conner // Photo from Eulalia Books’ Facebook page

Joe O’Conner’s Why Poetry? examines the function of poetry and its importance in our world. The goal of the book almost mirrors the goal of this class: to examine the function and important of small presses and their importance in the modern world. This class has provided a space for trying new things and dipping our toes in a whole new world of possibilities in the area of small press publishing. Throughout the course of this semester, we have learned all about notable small presses, the function of small presses compared to the “big six” publishers, and, most importantly, we’ve learned about how a small press operates to create a new work.

As I sat at the book launch and reading the other night, I couldn’t help but think about everything that we have learned to do in this course and how amazing it was that a group of college students could experience first-hand a new side of publishing with which many of us were unfamiliar.

From letterpress printing to our own publishing event, this class has gotten to experience a lot of important and all-encompassing aspects of small publishing. O’Conner asks “why poetry?” while this class, in turn, prompted us to ask “why small press publishing?” The answer I have come to in response to this question is pretty simple, though it is in several parts. Small press publishing is valuable because it allows the author to keep a sense of ownership over their piece, rather than surrendering creative rights to a board of a large publishing house. Small press publishing gives authors whose work may be overlooked by big publishing companies a place to present their ideas, directed at a very specific audience.

Why small press publishing? Because only with a small press can a group of college students in Latrobe, Pennsylvania help to create, assemble, and present a published book of poetry. This course has offered us an experience that few others will have—an experience that I know I will carry with me for a very long time.

The Value of the Hands-On Experience

It’s pretty remarkable how much hard work and careful thought goes into the process of publishing a book and advertising a book launch. When you hear about a new book or see advertising for a book launch, it’s hard to imagine how much work goes into the process of putting all of the things together to make the event and launch a success.

To prepare for the launch of Joe O’Conner’s book Why Poetry, there was a lot of work we had to do to get the books ready for distribution, set up the space for the book launch event, and advertise the event to the public. The process was long and took a lot of work, but it really paid off.

To get the books ready for distribution, we had to piece everything together ourselves. A few teams of students focused on formatting the layout of the book to ensure simplicity and clarity. As a class, we learned how to screen-print the covers of the books and sew the entire book together. This process took a while and learning how to bind and create the books was challenging at first until we got the hang of the process. Seeing the books come together at the end was incredibly rewarding.

Screen-printed cover of Why Poetry? // Photo by Johanna Philips

There were a lot of critical aspects to assembling the space for the book launch as well to ensure that all key components are in line for a successful event. Photographers have to be booked, food has to be ordered, a room has to be booked, and materials have to be set up to make a successful event.

The aspect of the book launch that I was involved in was the advertising. I helped to write the press release that would be used to publicize the event to the community. It was a bit daunting to write because it was an important aspect of publicizing, but it was interesting to be a part of.

This process of creating the book from scratch and setting up a publishing event was something incredibly valuable. This experience is not one that a lot of college students are able to take part in, and for someone who is interested in potentially pursuing a career in publishing in the future, helping with this event is something really special.

Why Poetry?

The more important question is – why not? After attending the book launch last Wednesday I am even more convinced that we all need poetry. Joe O’Connor’s unique way of finding the meaning and beauty in the everyday moments – and even in the moments that are far from beautiful – has inspired me to be more mindful of the world around me. It’s okay to slow down, to wonder, to be content with the ordinary. Our lives move at breakneck speed. We are obsessed with the next big thing, we are obsessed with work, we are obsessed with striving until we can’t anymore – intent on gathering as many things as possible. And these ambitions are not always bad, but when they go unbalanced they can be debilitating. Pride is dangerous. Poetry is a remedy

As Joe said at the reading, poets must be humble. Poets can offer a counter-perspective to a blind world and that is just as impactful and influential to our culture as advancements in technology and medicine. Joe stressed the importance of listening “with the ear of your heart” – which Saint Benedict iterates in his Holy Rule. The more we read poetry, the less deaf we become. The more we read poetry, the less we feel alone. Joe declares that “There are three truths: we are lost, we are human, we have everything we need.”

Joe O’Connor. Instagram @eulalia.books

I consider myself extremely fortunate to have met Joe O’Connor and to have contributed to the making of his first chapbook. I added to Eulalia’s Why Poetry? by designing a book announcement flyer. I and my classmate, Irina, worked in Adobe Illustrator – a program we navigated together since neither of us had previous experience. It took time to learn it, but soon we started to craft a layout and design that we felt portrayed Joe O’Connor’s poetry and mirrored the look of the cover. I was happy to design something that played such an important role in the launch. Most of all, I am thankful the experiences I have had in this class. I have learned so much about the ins and outs of small press publishing and I have enjoyed the hands-on work. There is only so much a student can learn while sitting at a desk, but by leaving the classroom and getting our hands dirty we not only learned , but we experienced. That is invaluable.